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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
“Volta” has a lot of the things you can always count on a Björk album to deliver: those soaring moments when the avant-pop pixie lets loose with her magical, rubbery alto; some of the most surprising rhythms this side of R&B or jazz; and, of course, a bunch of stuff that sounds unlike anything you’ve ever heard. So why doesn’t it measure up?
One of Björk‘s greatest strengths has always been the way her sense of experimentation, even in its darker moments, feels suffused with joy, an almost childlike glee at the array of possible sounds to play with and the multitude of emotions to explore. But that effervescent spirit is largely absent on “Volta,” weighed down as it is by the thinly veiled politicizing on tracks like “Declare Independence” and “Earth Intruders” and, even worse, a generally turgid musical sense. Oddly enough, the prime examples of the latter problem are the three much-hyped Timbaland/Björk collaborations, in which the rap maestro’s metallic, shifting beats fit awkwardly alongside the Icelandic songstress’ swooping vocal melodies.
But “Volta” is a Björk album, which means there are still a handful of unpredictable thrills: “Wanderlust” mixes some glitchy drum programming with a regal horn arrangement straight off a Gil Evans/Miles Davis album; “Dull Flame of Desire” features Björk and guest duet partner Antony Hegarty trading lines over a fanfare of Coliseum trumpets and rolling-thunder drum work; and “I See Who You Are” mixes torch-song dramatics with mournful Chinese stringed instruments. Those tracks ensure that “Volta” isn’t an outright dud — Björk is probably incapable of delivering one of those — but it’s closer to the sound of stasis than she has ever gotten before.
Favorite track: “Dull Flame of Desire”
“Keren Ann,” Keren Ann
Along with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sean Lennon and Feist, Israeli-Dutch singer-songwriter Keren Ann (born Keren Ann Zeidel) is part of a thriving subset of glamorous and cosmopolitan 30-somethings making pop music that drifts along in the netherworld between the “White Album’s” quieter moments and the dark decadence of Jacques Brel and German cabaret.
Moonlit and melancholy, “Keren Ann” — the follow-up to the singer’s 2004 breakthrough, “Nolita” — is a prime example of the subgenre’s alluring sound: Guitars wrap around each other like lace, pianos say goodnight to sleepy cellos and Keren Ann whisper-sings about pink tourmaline and weeping willow trees. If it all sounds a bit too precious, well, it is. “Keren Ann” is a lovely album, but the oppressively downcast atmosphere makes heartbreak out to be a terminal illness. Except for a slight rhythmic bounce on the penultimate track, “Between the Flatland and the Caspian Sea,” the album offers no suggestion of hope, no glimmer of transcendence. We all need a good cry every now and then, but we need more than that too.
Favorite track: “Where No Endings End”
“New Moon,” Elliott Smith
Posthumous collections of unreleased material are always a dicey proposition. For every caringly assembled Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin album, there’s yet another disc of subpar Jimi Hendrix or Tupac outtakes slinking its way onto the shelves. Thankfully, Elliott Smith’s “New Moon,” a double CD of rare and unreleased tracks recorded between 1994 and 1997, is much closer to the former than the latter. Full of rumpled, heartbroken balladry and Beatles-esque pop, it stands proudly alongside Smith’s best work.
It’s true that Smith’s untimely passing, in 2003, casts a dark shadow over “New Moon’s” sighing melodies and lilting finger-picked guitar, but the album is far from depressing. Unlike on “Keren Ann,” there’s never the sense with Smith’s music that sadness is an end in itself. One listen to “New Moon’s” beautiful, hopeful cover of Alex Chilton’s “Thirteen” — an ode to young romance and rock ‘n’ roll — proves that Smith knew what Keren Ann doesn’t: Music’s power is that it helps us transcend our problems, not that it allows us to wallow in them.
Favorite track: “Thirteen”
— David Marchese
David Marchese is associate music editor at Salon. More David Marchese.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)